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Flotsam: David Wiesner

I received a copy of Flotsam from Clarion Books a couple of weeks ago. I had been wanting to read it ever since reading A Fuse #8 Production's review last summer, and finally requested a review copy from the publisher. Flotsam was also a Cybils nominee in Fiction Picture Books, though it wasn't short-listed. Before I had a chance to read it, the book was awarded the 2007 Caldecott Medal, thus moving it up even further on my "to read" stack.

Flotsam is a wordless picture book, with detailed illustrations that reward close examination. A young boy is at the beach with his parents, with no other kids to play with. He entertains himself by examining crabs with his magnifying glass. Venturing too close to the water, he's toppled by a large wave. In its wake, the wave leaves a boxy, old-fashioned, underwater camera. As any right-minded child would do, he takes the film from the camera to a one-hour photo store, and also replaces it with a new roll of film. Returning to the beach, he examines the photos, and finds documentation of a fantastic underwater world filled with surprises.

The illustrations of the underwater world are different in tone from the illustrations of the boy on the beach. The beachside pages have an old-fashioned look about them, and are fairly sparse. They are frequently framed as a series of smaller pictures set on the same larger page. The scene where the boy is waiting for the one-hour photo captures perfectly his impatience, through a series of small images.

The underwater photos are more colorful, more whimsical, and very detailed. The boy finds photos of mechanical fish, octopuses who sit in armchairs and read to their children, tiny underwater aliens wearing bubble helmets, gigantic starfish with islands on their backs, and giant turtles bearing shell cities. Some of the details will make the reader laugh aloud, like the underwater fishbowl, with fish casually swimming in and out, the blowfish as open-air balloon, the electric eels working as light bulbs, and the spotted fish wearing a collar around its non-neck, with the name-tag Spot.

The last picture that the boy finds is of a girl, who is holding a picture of a boy, who in turn is holding a picture of a girl, and so on. Turning to his trusty microscope, the boy finds that this nesting of photos continues through several levels. Going back far enough, the pictures start to be in black and white, then in sepia, the clothing old fashioned. It's a perfect chain of all of the people who have found the camera.

Realizing what he has to do, the boy takes his own picture, while holding the photo of the girl holding a photo. Then he tosses the camera back into the ocean, where it embarks on another journey, this time with the reader traveling along. In the end, we see the camera swept up onto another beach, where a lonely girl is waiting.

It's amazing what David Wiesner is able to accomplish in this book without any words at all. We see the boy's curiosity and wonder. We follow all of his movements as he finds the camera, shows it to his parents, and checks with the lifeguard to make sure no one has reported it missing. We see vignettes of a hidden underwater world, one that any child would like to imagine really exists. And we see the camera transported by a series of sea creatures, to end up in the lap of another child.

I think that what makes this book work so well is the juxtaposition of the realistic beach scenes with the whimsical deep sea snapshots. The idea of a hidden world just out of view captures the imagination. The chain of photos going back in time gives the story depth, with the child as part of a larger cycle of people, and the camera a constant as time passes. I highly recommend this book for older pre-schoolers and early elementary school children.

Book: Flotsam
Author: David Wiesner
Publisher: Clarion Books for Children (Houghton Mifflin)
Original Publication Date: September 2006
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8
Source of Book: Review copy from Clarion
Other Blog Reviews: A Fuse #8 Production and Bec's Book Reports

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.